Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Villain Fun

by Allison Pang

So first off, Happy Halloween!

(For some reason, my posts seem to be coming up on a lot of the major holidays this year - but that's fun, so I'm going to run with it.)

Anyway, we've covered a lot of excellent ground this week on villains as protagonists, but I think overall that what makes a well-rounded villain is the ability for the reader to connect with them on some level - or at least understand their motivation. If anything, it can help with the creation of the protagonist as well - how they go about "defeating" the villain can say a lot about who they are.

I particularly like anti-heroes more than villains, or where the seeming-villain ends up being the good guy in the end. (Wreck-it Ralph, anyone? He's *programmed* to be the bad guy in his video game...and yet he manages to discover that he's more than that, to the point of attempting to sacrifice himself for the good of his friends.)

Back story can be *so* important. Take Magneto, for example - he's portrayed as a bad guy in the X-Men comics - and his methods aren't particularly nice when it comes to normal people - but a reader can understand that he's doing what he thinks he has to do in order to protect mutants. When you discover his back story of being imprisoned in a Nazi death camp and having his whole family murdered, well, now we can start to see how his experiences helped shape who he became. (Not that it should become an excuse for his actions, but at least we can see why he is the way he is, and that goes a long way in creating a complex character.)

What I find particularly fascinating is how in popular culture, readers and movie-watchers can often find it easy to "forgive" a villain because of their looks (or some need to tame the 'bad boy,' as was brought up earlier this week.) Sadly, it happens in real life as well - good looking criminals often get marriage proposals in prison, or are defended by those who cannot possibly believe someone who "looks innocent" could perform such terrible actions.

I could probably go on about what that says about society's obsession with perceived beauty and narcissistic tendencies, but that's probably a post for another day.

Seeing as it's Halloween, I want to take a look at some of the more popular types of villains in books and popular media common to this holiday instead.

1) The Slasher/Splatter-Killer. If you were a child in the 80's, you probably saw at least one of these sorts of movies - Friday the 13th, Halloween (ha ha), Nightmare on Elm Street, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They were a staple of early video stores and basic cable.  I don't think these sorts of villains work very well in a book setting, though I'm sure it's been done - but as any fan of the horror genre can tell you, we don't watch these movies for anything more cerebral than to see people die in awful and creative ways. Although each of these villains - Freddy, Michael, Jason, Leatherface have some sort of basic back story to explain their presence and their need to kill, most of the time these explanations are pretty thin - but for some reason they're enough to make umpteen sequels, so what do I know?  Maybe that's what is so terrifying - there is NO explanation as to why these guys are killing...and there's no way to stop them. In some ways, these movies are almost like modern morality plays. Have sex? YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.  Virgin? You will probably get away. Maybe. (But check out Cabin in the Woods for a very tongue-in-cheek look at this particular set of horror tropes.)

2) Animals as Evil.  Again,the 70's/80's had whole horror book/VHS movie sections dedicated to animals going batshit crazy and frothing into killing sprees - Jaws, Swarm, Cujo, Piranha, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Alligator, The Birds, Sharknado, Them! (I've included some more recent and older ones in that list, yes) We don't usually see a whole lot motivation behind why these creatures kill - maybe someone wanders into their territory and wakes them up, or rabies, or whatever - but the main thing that scares us is that these creatures can't be reasoned with. No matter what you do, short of killing them, you're screwed. Bonus points if the animals become super large as they go on their killing spree. Like my personal favorite, Night of the Lepus:

Yes. Killer bunnies.

3) Insane Normals - Of all the potential villains, these probably rank among the scariest. These are the psychopaths that blend into society. They're charming, well-educated, and often living double lives. Think Norman Bates or Hannibal Lecter - they earn the protagonist's trust, only to turn on them later. (And possibly eat them, because hey, why not.) I find these the worst to have to watch/read about simply because people like this do exist - I can't simply shove them under the rug as pure fantasy.

4) The Devil Among Us So what do you do when the villain actually IS the Devil? Exorcism, of course! (And there's a ton of exorcist type movies and books, though I still think The Exorcist is the best, and I'll throw The Omen up there too. (And frankly, I dig Chernabog from Night on Bald Mountain).

5) Man as Monster Vampires, werewolves and other assorted shape-changers and paranormal creatures. Over the years we've seen a big change in how these villains are perceived - as terrible beings, a la Salem's Lot or The Howling, vs sexy vampires from Buffy or Twilight.  Some of what made the old-school villains compelling is that they didn't KNOW they were the monster - it's one thing to go up against a creature of night...what happens when it's you?

And though we do see some horror creeping back in to the vampire trope (Fright Night or 30 Days of Night) - they key to the modern shapechanger is that they usually have a chance at redemption, where as the villains of years ago were pretty much monsters out for human blood. (I think The Lost Boys straddles this line, actually - there's a little of both happening there.)  Also gamer peeps - check out TheWolf Among Us - it's based on the Fables comics, and what happens when Fairy Tale creatures secretly live in the real world. You get to play Bigby Wolf (As in Big B Wolf /Big Bad Wolf - it's really interesting to see how your past (eating pigs and grandmothers) translates into how people perceive you in the world today...especially because now you're the sheriff responsible for keeping order in Fable society.)

5a) Zombies Technically they started out as human and had very little say as to their creation, but rotting corpses tend to lack the sex appeal of the vampire/werewolf dynamic, so they get a subcategory. (And frankly, it's not even that the zombies are always villains so much as what they represent - metaphors for human consumption or corporate greed AKA Soylent Green is people!  I'll throw Frankenstein into this category- although we have to ask ourselves who the bigger villain is - the monster created without consent or knowledge...or the Dr. who made him. (Or in the case of Resident Evil - the zombies? or Umbrella Corporation?) See also, CHUD or The Hills Have Eyes. Not zombies, exactly, but groups of cannibalistic hillbillies still fits the Zombie bill for me. )

6) In Space No One Can Hear You Scream Alien villains are all over the place. Species. Aliens. Critters.The Thing. The Kaiju from Pacific Rim. It. War of the Worlds. We're pitted against creatures we can't understand and have no natural defenses for. Bonus for aliens who live in sewers and look like clowns.

7) Demons At My Door. Not quite the Devil, per se - but there's still a supernatural element going on. Hellraiser, Poltergeist, Evil Dead. Child's Play. The Ring. The Grudge. Christine. Opening the forbidden book (or box, or trinket) and releasing the evil inside. (This is usually the sort of book or movie where the protags fall into that Too Stupid to Live trope. Why do they go into the basement alone? Why do they read the book that was clearly made from human skin? WHY do they play with the puzzle box?)

8) Creature Feature Not quiet animals, not quite aliens - this is where the mutant weird things hang out. Gremlins, Ghoulies, Jeepers Creepers (and anything that comes out of hibernation every x number of  years to prey on teenagers before going back to sleep.) Tremors. The Blob.

9) Witches Lots of witchy villains floating about popular media, but I am actually going to simply mention The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz - simply because I like how she goes from villain to anti-hero, given her backstory explained in the musical Wicked. She's much more sympathetic and her actions explained and it lends her much greater character definition.

I could probably go one with additional categories, but I think I'll end the post here by asking what your favorite horror villain is (I know I barely scratched the surface). And I'll also leave you with this:

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